What Makes Peer Review Effective

PHIL385, History of Modern Philosophy

This course has 9 enrolled students. It is a required course for the philosophy majors. I used peer review in various courses before. In all such cases as well as in this course, I used turnitin.com as the platform for carrying out all stages of writing.

My past experiments with peer reviews had various degrees of success (otherwise I wouldn’t have done it again this time). But they also had their problems. The common problem was this: very few students—only those who were highly motivated and good at time management, and knew how to make true revisions based on peer reviews (a skill not to be taken for granted)—would actually benefit from the process (as far as I could tell from their final products).

As an attempt to forestall that problem, in this semester’s PHIL 385 I supplemented peer review with various other steps. Here are all the stages leading up to a student’s final version of the final paper, all but the last one of which were mandatory:

  1. Come up with a topic and discuss it with the professor.
  2. Write a draft and submit it on turnitin.com.
  3. Peer review in accordance with the guiding questions provided by the professor. The students were randomly paired up (system sorted by turnitin.com), so that every paper would receive two reviews and each student would review two papers.
  4. Reflection on how to revise one’s paper based on the received peer reviews.
  5. If necessary, meet with the professor to discuss the revision. (Even though this step was optional, 8 out of the 9 students signed up for a meeting right away. Each meeting lasted for 45-60 minutes.

Based on my own experience with our philosophy majors in the last 2.5 years, the majority of them can use some training in writing. By doing peer review in PHIL 385 this semester, I was hoping to figure out the right training method, which I could then recommend to my colleagues who teach similar courses.

I conducted a survey, through surveymonkey.com, about the peer review and other stages involved in the writing of the final paper. 8 out of the 9 students responded to the survey. Besides what the survey showed, the students also told me in person (during stage e) how much they appreciated—and enjoyed—writing a philosophy paper in this way. Some of them said that this was the most rigorous and most effective training in writing they had ever received in their career as a philosophy major. (All of them were juniors or seniors.) From my perspective, collectively the students in this class produced much better papers than any other undergraduate class I had ever taught. I gather that these students, because they had put so much effort in the earlier stages of writing, they felt so much more invested and interested in making a strong finish.

The main thing I learned from using peer review in my PHIL 385 this semester was this: peer review alone is not enough to make the students produce their best possible work. It has to be supplemented by other steps, such as the ones I mentioned above. I should also point out that I, having to guide the students and supervise them at every one of those steps, had to invest a lot of time and energy in designing, planning, keeping track of everything and making sure that everybody was doing their share (to be fair to their peers). In a way, I felt that my own complete devotion was key to the success of the whole process. Every bit of such devotion was worth it.